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Myanmar: Persecution of Rohingya Muslims stymies democratization

By Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu
November 8, 2014

Myanmar’s world-renowned democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi said during a press conference she held on Wednesday, November 5, that her country’s democratic progress has rather stalled since early 2013; therefore the world should not be overly optimistic about the prospect of reform by the current regime.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks, inviting the U.S. and the global community at large to be cautious with regard to their evaluation of the pace of reforms in her country, came right ahead of a two-day state visit to be paid by U.S. President Barack Obama to Myanmar on the occasion of the 9th East Asia Summit to be held next week with the attendance of several world leaders.

The Nobel laureate leader of the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party in Myanmar’s parliament, added during the press conference she gave in Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon, that the remnants of the former military regime, which was nominally dissolved in 2011 after keeping her under house arrest for 15 years, still dominate the political stage and obstruct democratization in Myanmar. 

Last week, Suu Kyi held a historic high-level meeting with her country’s president, Thein Sein, and the military top brass, the results of which she said fell short of expectations. Nevertheless, she remarked that Myanmar made an important start on a path forward, and iterated her willingness to push enthusiastically for further reforms. 

Indeed, Thein Sein, the current President of Myanmar, has been held in high esteem by the international community after he set off to democratize his country, paving the way for the release of hundreds of political opponents imprisoned under the former military regime, and allowing the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the parliament through open elections. 

However, the West’s policies aimed at the promotion of democracy in Myanmar, coupled with efforts to mobilize public opinion pioneered by veteran campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement, faced severe challenges especially in the past couple of months.

Most importantly, the pseudo-civilian government has been accused of insisting on its violation of minority ethnic and religious groups’ rights, especially those of the Muslim Rohingya community, which is occasionally brutalized by radical Buddhist groups with officials turning a blind eye at best.

The UN also notes signs of regression as far as the government’s human rights record is concerned, pointing at a recent crack-down on the media leading to the jailing of dozens of journalists and peaceful political activists through a spate of high-profile cases which topped the country’s political agenda especially in the last couple of months. 

All that Aung San Suu Kyi can do under current circumstances is to try convincing the military to take steps in line with the people’s expectations. She is still constitutionally barred from running for the presidential elections of 2015, due to a restrictive, junta-drafted clause which is widely acknowledged to be targeting her potential candidacy in particular. 

Making matters worse, the army has an effective veto power over any amendments to the constitution, alongside the power to dissolve the parliament as a whole, with a quarter of all seats in both chambers of the parliament still occupied by un-elected military officials.

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